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USDA responds to appeal from elephant ride operators

DEL MAR — The owners of the company that provides elephant rides during the San Diego County Fair didn’t get the exact response they sought in an appeal to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a noncompliance issue. 

“But we’re happy the USDA acknowledged that we do a good job,” said Kari Johnson, who co-owns Have Trunk Will Travel with her husband, Gary. “They think we’re good people.”

The company was cited for failing to maintain elephants under the direct control and supervision of a knowledgeable and experienced handler in August 2012 during the Central States Fair in Rapid City, S.D.

The USDA inspector noted that during the rides, the elephant not being used was not secured and often not supervised.

Kari Johnson said the problems were corrected immediately at the site and an appeal was later submitted.

Johnson said Have Trunk Will Travel has been licensed by the USDA during the nearly 40 years that it’s been offering elephant rides. She said other than making upgrades as technology and other factors have improved the industry, her company hasn’t done much to change how the rides are conducted.

She said they appealed the report — their first ever noncompliance citation — because they believed the way the USDA enforces the regulations may have changed.

Although their appeal was denied, language in the report was modified “to better explain some of the circumstances as well as to make it clear that while the rides were being given, there were no instances in which the two elephants in the ride enclose came into contact with each other, or the public,” according to a letter from the USDA.

Robert Gibbens, the department’s western regional director, also thanked the Johnsons for sharing updates to their security program.

“This type of proactive approach for your elephant exhibits clearly shows your commitment to animal welfare and public safety, and is certainly reflected in your outstanding compliance history with the USDA over the years,” Gibbens wrote.

In another letter, Gibbens lauded Have Trunk Will Travel for its safety record, “excellent compliance history” and “documented training and experience” of the staff and pachyderms.

The company was criticized last year after Animal Defenders International released a DVD that was videotaped at Have Trunk Will Travel in Perris, Calif.

The recording shows Have Trunk Will Travel owners and trainers using bull hooks — tools with a bronze or steel hook attached to a handle — and electric prods to train the animals.

Johnson said the recording was not in context and taken by people who aren’t qualified to comment on the footage.

Nonetheless, animal rights groups asked the fairgrounds board of directors to stop the rides, although there have been no complaints or issues with the event during the annual local fair.

Directors opted to revisit the issue next year, after an occupational safety policy adopted by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums will require facilities to limit training to protected contact rather than free contact to retain the association’s accreditation.

The USDA documents were included in the fair board’s February agenda packet. Adam Day, board president, said unless one of his colleagues asks to have the item put on a future agenda, which hasn’t been done, the board currently has no plans to address the issue.

“The amended USDA report still clearly documents that Have Trunk Will Travel was risking public safety by not having a knowledgeable and experienced animal handler under direct control of one of their elephants,” said Matt Rossell from Animal Defenders International.

“The video evidence obtained by Animal Defenders International depicts the current owners and trainers at Have Trunk Will Travel violently hitting and shocking their elephants, leaving no doubt these are abused animals,” he added. “No regulation or safety measure can ensure the safety of the public when wild, abused elephants are being used to give rides in a crowded fairground.”

“The animal rights activists made it sound like we were endangering the public,” Johnson said. “We’re mostly happy the USDA recognized that we care about our elephants and we care about the public.

“We’ve worked hard over the years to get a great reputation and we’re happy they acknowledged that,” she said.



Jessica February 27, 2013 at 10:49 am

The USDA is in the back pocket of many of these organizations. It is like the fox guarding the hen house, so to speak. The Johnson’s and their entourage abuse their elephants and even a kindergartener watching the video would be able to decipher that. I am saddened and extremely disappointed that the fair Board of Directors continues to allow and support abuse of elephants and other animals for entertainment and amusement. Talk about greed!

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